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Russia: Media Wars Intensify Before Upcoming Elections

The battles between Russian media groups and the Kremlin are intensifying. Kremlin chief-of-staff Aleksandr Voloshin has joined in the information wars between media tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. RFE's Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato says that with parliamentary and presidential elections looming in Russia, the disputes are acquiring dark political overtones ...

Moscow, 30 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin has asked Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to sort out what he called the "financial relationships" of Media Most, the country's biggest and most influential private media holding company.

Stepashin's move follows a bitter war of words between Kremlin chief-of-staff Alexandr Voloshin and Media Most's top managers in the past few days. Earlier this week, Voloshin said that liberal media outlets controlled by Media Most were pressuring the government. Voloshin said their propaganda campaign coincides with a routine tax inspection of the Russian media.

Media Most -- controlled by financier Vladimir Gusinsky -- has openly backed Moscow mayor and potential presidential candidate Yuri Luzhkov. Media Most accuses Voloshin of harassment in ordering probes into its finances in order to force the powerful holding company to change its political allegiance and back the Kremlin's efforts to get the results it wants from December parliamentary elections and the June 2000 presidential vote.

The latest round in Russia's information wars has been fought by media controlled by Gusinsky, in response to attacks launched by media controlled by controversial Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky.

Previously, Russian Public Television ORT -- influenced by Berezovsky -- said that the commercial channel NTV -- which often criticizes Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Kremlin -- is deep in debt. NTV, controlled by Media Most, responded by saying it is the victim of a campaign conducted by Berezovsky and Voloshin.

Last week (July 23), the editors-in-chief of the most influential media assets forming Media Most -- including NTV, Radio Ekho Moskvy, the weekly "Itogi" magazine and the daily "Segodnya" -- sent an open letter to President Boris Yeltsin. The letter complained that top Kremlin officials -- under Voloshin's leadership -- are using their influence on organs such as the tax police to put pressure on the country's independent media.

Earlier this week, Yeltsin interrupted his vacation and returned to the Kremlin. Following a meeting with Yeltsin that day, Voloshin said that Yeltsin was "alarmed by the continuing pressure" being placed on the government by such an "influential and respected" media organization as Media Most.

Voloshin also said Media Most has "received more state financial help than the entire group of state media." He called the letter to the president by Media Most's top editors "an attempt to obtain fresh money, using blackmail methods."

A second Media Most letter to Yeltsin immediately followed Voloshin's remarks. It accused the chief-of-staff of lying, saying that Media Most has never received financial assistance from the state. Most also accused Voloshin of something that is considered a very serious matter in Kremlin circles: manipulating Yeltsin and providing him with distorted information.

The letter said that "Voloshin's comments regarding the position of the president make us suppose that in other cases the president receives distorted information about what is going on in the country." Two days ago (July 28), Media Most's top editors reiterated their positions during a well-attended Moscow press conference.

Andrei Tsymailo is chairman of Media Most's board of directors. At the press conference, he explained why -- in the holding company's view -- the "financial help" that Voloshin said Media Most receives from the state needed a more precise explanation. In fact, Tsymailo said, Media Most has received no subsidies and no irredeemable loans from the state:

"Were there other, hidden, forms of help? For instance, companies sometimes do not pay various bills to state institutions for a certain amount of time. The state does not take any action, it does not try to collect the money and does not start bankruptcy procedures, despite debts that in some cases reach millions of dollars. This can be called help. But NTV has always paid the communications ministry for the broadcast signal. And we pay taxes, including state taxes, punctually enough."

Television experts present among the journalists, however, remembered a presidential decree Yeltsin signed after his re-election. The decree said that NTV, a fully private company, together with formally state-controlled RTR and ORT, should be considered what was termed "all-national" TV companies.

Like the other two companies, NTV pays a fee for its broadcast signal that is well beneath the commercial rate. For Russian TV companies, the broadcast signal accounts for 50 to 70 percent of their budget.

Commenting on the issue, the prominent Russian daily "Kommersant" wrote this week that average Russian citizens have no more grounds to believe NTV than the Kremlin, and vice versa. NTV, the newspaper wrote, accuses the Kremlin of pressuring it. The Kremlin answers that it is NTV that is putting pressure on the state. Voloshin accuses Gusinsky of blackmail, and Gusinsky returns Voloshin's accusations. Gusinsky says that Voloshin arranged the tax inspection of Media Most for political reasons, and Voloshin responds that, on the contrary, it was Gusinsky who arranged political actions in order to avoid tax inspections.

"Kommersant" concluded that the Russian media information war risks are reaching what it called the "point of no return."

It remains to be seen whether Russia's new media ministry, set up earlier this month by President Yeltsin, will have any influence on the media battles.

Mikhail Lesin -- head of the new Ministry for Press, Broadcast and Mass Media -- told "Kommersant" last week that the government must be protected from a free press, although he promised to refrain from imposing censorship or editorial control. He said the government could protect itself by hiring skillful public-relations agents who would portray government policies and methods in a favorable light.

Russia's Communist politicians say the new ministry is only a government attempt to manipulate the media ahead of the upcoming elections.